My work is a lot about surface decoration. And a well-crafted canvas to put the pattern on is essential to my creativity. There is something extraordinary with the three dimensions of a pot; the inside and the outside surfaces give the possibility of storytelling that a two-dimensional canvas cannot. A vessel’s roundness adds an element of surprise with a decoration that often becomes irregularly-shaped around the form.
I use a lot of different techniques and materials when decorating, mainly slips and underglazes. My production contains a range of themes such as blandskogen (mixed forest), äppeltider (apple season), and vilddjuren (wild animals).
The shapes I throw are quite simple, based on an old Scandinavian earthenware tradition. I love throwing, and I want my pots to be used, so function is just as important as the decoration.
Throw a Wide Plate with Tall Walls
I usually throw my big plates, but they can be made with slabs too. The important thing is to get a smooth surface to decorate on. I use an earthenware from the small Swedish island of Gotland, and use about 10 pounds (5 kg) to make this type of plate. Throw a plate with a 10-inch flat bottom and a wall about 4 inches in height (see 1).
I put large handles on plates so they’re easier to use. To incorporate the handles into the shape, first alter the rim of the plate right after throwing. If the handles are to be upright, I alter the rim by curving it down, creating a spout. For handles that stand out from the side, I curve the rim inward so there’s space for the fingers between the handle and rim (1).
Decorative and Functional Handles
Make handles from hollow rolls of clay, which are tapered and pinched together at the ends to form a pod shape. Start with a flat slab that is narrow at both ends and wider in the middle (see 2). Next, I use pre-made bisque-fired stamps or other tools, such as wooden sticks with different points, to create decoration and pattern on the slab (2). Next, throw the slab on a flat, non-stick surface in a backward motion. This skews the stamped pattern in a way that’s impossible to do by hand. I like how it gives a feeling of not being in total control, just letting the clay and movement cooperate to create a very distinct look. Bend the stretched slabs to form a tube shape (3), then curve them over a rolling pin so they can stiffen up (4).
Once the handles hold their shape and the platter has stiffened up to the same state of wetness/dryness, fit them to the form, and attach by scoring and slipping, then adding small coils of clay around the joint, to make sure they won’t fall off when the white slip base makes the plate wet again (5).
Prepping the Canvas
Pour an even coat of slip on the interior of the plate first (6), then brush the handles with slip before leaving it to dry. The next day, coat the exterior with slip. I like to pour the slip on, but it can be applied with a brush, which will give it a different surface with more variation in the thickness, more like aquarelle painting.
I like to paint some decorative elements with black slip onto the leather-hard pot over the dried slip (7). This gives the opportunity to get a solid, graphic black contrast to the rest of the decoration once it’s painted with underglaze. If you wait to do this, there won’t be any areas wide enough to fit these larger shapes.
When the slip is semi dry, cover the whole interior and exterior surfaces, but not the handles, with wax resist. I add a little bit of water to the wax to thin it, which makes it easier to use to draw fine lines.
Drawing and Balancing a Surface Design
Draw the design through the surface of the wax resist before the plate is completely dry. If it’s too dry, the wax and slip might flake or chip off. If it’s too wet, the tool makes rougher marks when drawing the lines. I use a needle tool or an X-Acto knife to draw with and the whole composition is drawn freehand (8). I usually have a rough idea and I plan ahead where to put the major elements of the pattern. If there are some overlapping elements, like birds in a tree or leaves behind an apple, I have to draw the top elements first.
Working like this, quite fast, with no sketching beforehand, might cause surprises like unexpected empty spaces. When that happens, I add in some filler objects such as small branches with berries, wheat stalks, or clouds. The important thing is that the design has a good balance.
I look at a lot of objects from the Baroque era to learn how to find harmony in a surface design that is not built up from a center but is more scattered. Symmetry is important to consider, even if the finished design looks asymmetrical. It’s also very challenging and exciting trying to create balance between different shapes and the empty spaces in between, and getting them to work as a whole.
Next, fill the carved outlines of the pattern with a dark colored underglaze. I use a black commercial stain or cobalt oxide (9). Now, add sgraffito lines to the larger black elements of the design motif on the exterior surface to create a white line design (10), but don’t fill these lines with underglaze. Let it dry, then clean off the excess underglaze on the inside surface with a soft sponge and water (11). Be careful not to clean too much or you may remove all of the color. Leave the plate to dry completely, then bisque fire it.
After the bisque firing, wipe the surface with a sponge to remove all remains of the wax as well as any other small mishaps.
Coloring in the Lines
Now it’s time to add color to the pattern (12). I use homemade underglazes (see recipe, right), commercial stains, and glazes mixed with oxides and I apply them with paintbrushes and foam stamps. Commercial stains are sturdy and may run a little bit if you want that effect. I apply some colored glazes on top of some of the underglazes to enhance the colors. Oxides are more likely to run than stains. And I do want it to run! That gives a softer, livelier look to the pot.
Within each outlined shape, I like to be creative with additional patterns. This highlights certain shapes and also allows some elements to pop while others sit more in the background, again, leading to a more harmonious overall design (13, 14).
Paint an iron-rich glaze over all of the yellow underglazed areas to make it run and brighten the yellow (15).
Partially cover the handles with a copper glaze to make them green (16). A partial covering allows the texture and a bit of the slip to still show through.
Brush a copper glaze (made from a transparent glaze base) over the black-slipped design elements so they bleed green (17).
Finally, the plate is dipped in a commercial clear glaze and fired to cone 04 (1940°F (1060°C)). I glaze it all the way around the bottom as well, then I fire it on three triangular kiln stilts/sticks (18). You can grind off any remnants of the sticks after the firing, so only small marks remain.
Åsa Olofsson has maintained a studio in Åkersberga, Sweden, since 2000. She was educated at Leksands folkhögskola in Sweden, at Kunsthåndvaerkerskolen in Kolding, Denmark, and was an apprentice at Paradisverkstaden in Öland, before working as a thrower at Etelhems Krukmakeri in Gotland. Olofsson is currently a member of two artist-run cooperatives in Stockholm and Uppsala, Sweden. To see more, follow her on Instagram @asaannakarin.